Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell).
Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (also called acute lymphocytic leukemia or ALL) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. This type of cancer usually gets worse quickly if it is not treated.
ALL is the most common type of cancer in children.
In a healthy child, the bone marrow makes blood stem cells (immature cells) that become mature blood cells over time. A blood stem cell may become a myeloid stem cell or a lymphoid stem cell.
A myeloid stem cell becomes one of three types of mature blood cells:
- Red blood cells that carry oxygen and other substances to all tissues of the body.
- Platelets that form blood clots to stop bleeding.
- White blood cells that fight infection and disease.
A lymphoid stem cell becomes a lymphoblast cell and then one of three types of lymphocytes (white blood cells):
- B lymphocytes that make antibodies to help fight infection.
- T lymphocytes that help B lymphocytes make the antibodies that help fight infection.
- Natural killer cells that attack cancer cells and viruses.
Blood cell development. A blood stem cell goes through several steps to become a red blood cell, platelet, or white blood cell.
In a child with ALL, too many stem cells become lymphoblasts, B lymphocytes, or T lymphocytes. These cells are cancer (leukemia) cells. The leukemia cells do not work like normal lymphocytes and are not able to fight infection very well. Also, as the number of leukemia cells increases in the blood and bone marrow, there is less room for healthy white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets. This may lead to infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.
This summary is about acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children, teenagers, and young adults. See the following PDQ summaries for information about other types of leukemia:
- Childhood Acute Myeloid Leukemia/Other Myeloid Malignancies Treatment
- Adult Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia Treatment
- Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia Treatment
- Adult Acute Myeloid Leukemia Treatment
- Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia Treatment
- Hairy Cell Leukemia Treatment
Family history and being exposed to radiation may affect the risk of developing childhood ALL.
Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your child's doctor if you think your child may be at risk. Possible risk factors for ALL include the following:
- Being exposed to x-rays before birth.
- Being exposed to radiation.
- Past treatment with chemotherapy.
- Having certain changes in the genes.
- Having certain genetic conditions that include the following:
- Down syndrome.
- Bloom syndrome.
- Shwachman syndrome.